Ongoing efforts by trade and scholarly publishers to demand higher prices for their digitized content and the growing, if flawed, perception that new technologies have made the information function of libraries obsolete have put librarians on the defensive. New devices and methods to deliver the entertainment and information people want have rekindled ancient debates about the mission of the library.
To mollify a chorus of protests from some of the intellectual elite of the city and the nation, Tony Marx, president of the New York Public Library (NYPL), got Abby and Howard Milstein to put up the money to make space at 42nd Street to store 3.3 million volumes of 4.5 million planned for remote storage. It was an expensive but responsive move, but it wasn’t enough to satisfy Ada Louise Huxtable, the grand dame of architectural critics who writes for Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal (WSJ).
The cheering echoes still throughout librarianship. Recent court decisions—such as the HathiTrust’s win over the Authors Guild—strengthen the use of the concept of “fair use” to exempt from copyright the reproduction of material, liberate the free digitization of so-called “orphan works,” and allow free public access to the results. Yet even those cheering the loudest caution that there are still no definitive rules to apply to these victories. The victories are yet evidence of the value of well-organized efforts to prevent copyright from locking up our intellectual and cultural resources. The leaders of the Library Copyright Alliance (LCA), comprised of the Association of Research Libraries, the American Library Association (ALA), and the Association of College and Research Libraries (an ALA division), deserve the cheers and the continuing support of librarians.
I was overjoyed when John Chrastka emailed to tell me about EveryLibrary, the new political action committee (PAC) he had just created. EveryLibrary will raise funds nationally and spend them on local library ballot initiatives like tax rates, bonds, and other referenda. It is difficult to understand why none of us in the profession nor our organizations did this decades ago.
The library profession’s advocacy efforts have had very little impact. Why we have not addressed this obvious problem more aggressively is a mystery. Of course, there have been some successes, especially at the local level. They have been good enough to show us that the great reservoir of public support for public libraries is still full and can be tapped. Still, the profession simply has not found a way to tap that public support to influence the political process.
Programs for the public have always been a staple of American library service. New needs brought on by an economic downturn, a shift to digital devices, and an onslaught of immigration have given library programs greater importance than ever in the array of offerings public libraries provide. The result has been development of new best practices to make library programs much more popular with the public and much more useful in providing things people want and need. [...]
It was very good news when Mary Frances Cooper, a librarian, was appointed the 11th director of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh (CLP) in January. I was never totally comfortable when CLP was directed by a nonlibrarian from business, even though that great library, built by Pittsburgh steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, is symbolic of all the public/private partnerships so crucial to the public good in America.
When governments run the corporations, it is communism. When corporations run the governments, as Mussolini showed us, it is fascism. To keep our society between and away from those extremes, we need a humane, socially, politically, and economically responsible entrepreneurial capitalism. That is a paraphrase of some of what Robert F. Kennedy Jr. said in his keynote speech at the recent conference of the Public Library Association (PLA) in Philadelphia. I didn’t record his exact words, but that is what I took away.